Parshat B’reishit

Torah Reading for Week of October 7-13, 2012

“For the Sake of….”
By Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, ‘04


I love Torah study.  Up to twenty of my congregants crowd around my dining room table on Shabbat morning and, with a variety of TaNaChim ,  we learn together, expanding on ancient themes, spinning off into contemporary interpretations, weaving meaning for today.  Often we never get past the first verse of the parashah we’re studying.  I have a feeling that such may be the case this Shabbat, as we delve into par’shat B’reishit

B’reishit bara Elokim et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz…” generally elicits the long-remembered translation of our childhood “In the beginning, G-d created the heaven and the earth…”  This is, of course, the translation of the classic 1917 edition of the Jewish Publication Society’s Holy Scriptures, the 1947 Soncino Chumash, the 1960 J. H. Hertz edition of The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, and the 1988 Koren Jerusalem Bible.   The opening phrase begs the question, “of what?”  “In the beginning of what?”

If we translate the preposition “b’” as “at”, as Everett Fox did in the 1988 Schocken Bible, Volume I:  The Five Books of Moses, we begin to fill in the thought by interpreting the Hebrew as:  “At the beginning of G-d’s creating of the heavens and the earth….”

The 1996 Art Scroll Stone edition of the Tanach fills in the translation interpretively:  “In the beginning of G-d’s creating the heavens and the earth….”  The 2001 Eitz Hayim, Torah and Commentary translates it:  “When G-d began to create heaven and earth….” And the 2008 URJ “The Torah:  A Women’s Commentary” adds yet another nuance:  “When G-d was about to create heaven and earth…”

One of our tools for clarifying Hebrew is to look at how it is used in various contexts.

I am reminded of one of my first Hebrew books as a child, Reishit Daat (although we called it “Reishees Daas” , as we learned Ashkenazic Hebrew).  I always thought that the primer’s title meant “Beginning Understanding” or “Beginning of Knowledge”….but, maybe not.

As my colleague, Rabbi Alicia Magal (AJRCA ‘03) points out, Rashi, the 11th century commentator, noted that the (“B’reishit bara” phrase) …”begs to be elucidated:  ‘Darsheini—Explain me, draw me out’ it asks the reader!”  However, when he suggested that the preposition “b’” should be interpreted not as “in” or “at” or even “when”, but as “for the sake of.”  Opening up this juicy (Jewsy?) first phrase of our Torah further, Rashi chose this interpretation by looking at Proverbs 8:22 and Tanchuma Yashan 5), he cited “For the sake of Torah, which is called Reishit Darko, the beginning of His way, and for Israel, called Reishit T’vuatah, the first of His crop [citing Jeremiah 2:3 and Tanchuma Yashan 3].”

Everett Fox points out that the phrase “heaven and earth” is “probably a merism—an inclusive idiom meaning ‘everything’ or ‘everywhere’ –such as in Hamlet’s ‘There are more things in heaven and earth…’”.  We now can interpret “B’reishit bara Elokim et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz” as “For the purpose of Torah and Israel, G-d created everything.”

Hmmm, when I look at it that way, I suddenly feel like the delicious moments of getting together on Shabbat to study Torah were divinely destined “b’reishit’’.

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